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Leaning in – or stepping back?

It’s crunch time for the UK government’s net zero goals. The threat of rising energy prices accompanied by soaring inflation are making it hard going on the path to net zero.

And with sanctions now imposed on Russia as Europe’s largest supplier of gas, energy prices for householders and businesses look set to keep rising for some time to come.

In early February 2022, environmental groups criticised Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s moves to encourage more drilling for gas in the North Sea. This is at odds with the International Energy Agency’s Net Zero Roadmap, which states that “there is no place for new fossil fuel projects if the world is to reach net zero emissions by 2050”.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has described government support for new oil and gas as ‘unwise’ – although it doesn’t entirely condemn the move.

Unfortunately, energy is as much of a political issue as inflation and taxation. Voters are more likely to feel the immediate pain of costly electricity and gas than they are to worry about the impact of climate change. New drilling sounds like it will lower our energy bills (though the CCC says that’s unlikely).

Faced with all that’s going on, it is tempting for government to put the environmental mission to the back of the list and turn to fossil fuel production. It looks like the least-worst option to reassure the country that it will still have electricity and heating in the coming months.

The big problem with all of this is, as they say in politics, the optics. Government is trying to persuade householders to adopt electric heat pumps in favour of gas boilers. That’s challenging enough in a nation that’s so used to its boilers; even harder when the government seems to be stepping back from its own low-carbon commitments.

We seem to have reached a difficult middle ground in our attempts to achieve Net Zero. We’ve gone a long way towards greening our electricity grid with investment in wind power, but not quite far enough that we can leave gas behind when the wind’s not there. And we are investing in nuclear power, but that takes a long time to come online – so again, we turn back to gas.

The government has a habit of stepping back from going green when the going gets tough, and it isn’t just affecting HVAC. Electric vehicles are often cited as the exemplar of encouraging adoption of low-carbon technology at scale. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) reports that * 2021 was the most successful year in history for electric vehicle uptake in the UK – 18.5% of all cars registered in 2021 could be plugged in.

But again we see government announce cuts to purchase incentives and grants for electric chargers at home. And the lack of on-street charging is also causing problems. Government isn’t leaning in to keep up the momentum. It sees the early shoots of growth and seems ready to cut support.

Clear leadership, consistent policy and real investment that isn’t withdrawn at the first signs of success will be crucial to get us to Net Zero. High fossil-fuel energy prices should be our driver to push onwards with the move to renewables. In addition to the environmental aspects of this argument, the geopolitics of 2022 is showing us (yet again) that renewables offer a more stable energy future for the UK.

It’s time to lean in to our renewable future, not step back.

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